Artful Blogger

Q&A: Sex-obsessed men, what Matthew Firth won’t tell Mom, and how a Spiderman action figure became a sex toy

By Paul Gessell

Matthew Firth’s new book of short stories, Shag Carpet Action, will bowl you over and leave you gobsmacked.

Some of the stories are raunchy. Others are violent. Still others will make you laugh aloud. One is downright sordid. But they are all about very believable people, except perhaps for the one in which a woman turns a Spiderman action figure into a sex toy. Women and Spiderman do not fare well in Firth’s stories.

The Ottawa author of such previous books as Suburban Pornography and Other Stories and Can You Take Me There, Now? recently subjected himself to a quiz from the Artful Blogger.

Q. Have any Spiderman fan clubs threatened violence against you for the sexual abuse inflicted on a Spiderman action figure in the story Action?

A. Well, not yet. But is it really abuse? Seems the Spidey in the story gets off on his role as a makeshift dildo, doesn’t he? The abuse really comes in a more violent form at the hands of the young boy in the story who rips Spiderman’s arms off. But that, as it turns out, opens up new possibilities for the action figure. However, I would agree that there are likely Spiderman fans out there who would be upset at how poor Spidey is portrayed in the story. I have not heard from any, however. Maybe they don’t read a lot of salty CanLit. Who knows?

Q. Many of your male characters come across as sex-obsessed losers. These characters seem well-crafted. Is this the kind of crowd you run around with?

A. Aren’t all males sex-obsessed? I think they are. Some show it more than others. Those who deny it are just unwilling to come clean, I reckon. But whether they’re mostly losers is all in the eye of the beholder.

The lacrosse players in “The Rookie and the Whore” are certainly sex-obsessed. Sex after games is a great way for them to cash in on their elevated small-town status and they do because they know how precarious and fleeting their elevated status is.

The garbagemen in “Dog Fucker Blues” — not all of them, but certainly Duguay and Smith — are sex-obsessed. They are manic, drugged-up marauders; sex is comfort food after wallowing in ordinary citizens’ garbage all day.

By way of these two examples: I don’t run around with these types of males, at least not any more. But to be honest — I am a former Senior A lacrosse player and a garbage collector (I was both, about 20-23 years ago). At that time, I witnessed a lot of what goes into some of the characters in Shag Carpet Action. But I was more a witness to, than a participant in, any shenanigans — sexual or otherwise — that resemble anything in my fiction. Maybe that makes me the loser? The geeky fictionalizer who writes about it rather that does it?

Q. Many of your female characters experience a lot of sex, willingly and otherwise. What do the women in your life feel about your portrayal of women in this book?

A. Well, I can only say somewhat what my wife thinks about it — she knows exactly what parts are drawn from real experience and what parts I make up or draw from other sources. She’s not uncomfortable with the sex in the book. She likes the humour.

That was her first comment when she read the stories “Shag Carpet” and “Greeks”, for example. She really said, “This is funnier than your other books.”

While she had no issues with the sexual content, she said I need more female characters that are stronger. She’s likely right about that. No wait, she is definitely right about that. I often write about scruffy, truculent, horny males — maybe because authenticity is very important to me in my fiction. Maybe I need to mature more as a writer to write about women more authentically.

But the story “Action” is told from a female perspective, though I am coy about this in the story. I read that story at an event in Vancouver a couple of months ago. I then sat down at a table afterward and two women started to argue about the story — not in an aggressive way, just in a difference-of-opinion way.

One said there was no way any woman would yearn for the sort of action I described, specifically, for violent sex. The other woman disagreed completely and said she got it that it wasn’t so much the type of sex the woman was after but that the character just really wanted any type of change, any sort of tilt, so that she could feel alive.

This woman reader couldn’t care less whether my blunt descriptions could be construed as misogynistic. I think readers’ reactions are all over the map. I don’t think my writing generally repulses women. I think their reactions are as varied as male readers’ reactions. Of course, I tell my mother not to read my shit – that’s one female opinion I do not want with respect to the sexual content. I guess I’m the one with the hang-up in that regard.

Q. The last story in the book, which takes up about half of the book, is about a blue-collar union ravaged by violence, drugs, and bribes. Do you think Canadian literature generally has tended to ignore the stories of blue-collar people or told those stories inaccurately?

A. Yes, absolutely. Blue-collar or working class lit is grossly under-represented in CanLit. I think there are plenty of reasons for this, but largely it comes down to a class bias, a certain measure of snobbery wherein publishers, writers, reviewers, and others are complicit in a plot to omit these types of stories in favour of more palatable middle class stories that don’t rankle readers so much or mess with their assumptions about Canadian society.

CanLit has a long tradition of being gentle and soft — of being mollified by government funding agencies that push anything salty to the margins. That said; Anvil Press in Vancouver has been very supportive of my work. They are very open to what I do.

Brian Kaufman, the editor there, is a great guy who sees the value in telling stories centred on characters who might be seen by some as unworthy of documentation in fiction. All this said, I don’t pretend to be a working class hero or anything. I lead an admittedly comfortable middle class existence these days, thanks to a decent day job and a conscious decision on my part 25 years ago to get an education so that I didn’t end up working the shitty jobs that I had to work back then for the rest of my life.

I grew up in Hamilton and I used to walk by factories on my way to high school – I saw those guys looking beaten up on their way into the plants and I saw them looking relatively and fleetingly euphoric when their shift was over. My dad, too, he went to work with a lunch bucket in his hand and never looked too happy about it. I wanted something else.

But I experienced enough of that blue-collar working drudgery to replicate some of it in fiction. Many of the characters I write about are real people who really were insane, drunk garbagemen, for example. I worked beside these guys. There is as much depth and nuance to their character as to anyone’s, so why not write about them in fiction? Plus when I see so much boring, middle class, drab CanLit shit — I can’t take it. I like fiction with a dark heart. There is not enough of it in Canada. I try to fix that imbalance a little in my own way.

Q. Where is the best place in Ottawa to meet the kind of people you write about?

A. I’d suggest any old-man tavern you can find. Though you have to be careful as many posers and pretenders overrun these places. I’ve lived in Ottawa for 11 years. I know it less well than my hometown, Hamilton, where there are old man bars and strip clubs aplenty. Ottawa has those, too. But go on an off night: A Tuesday. Or during the day, after the lunch crowd has dispersed, if there is a lunch crowd; 3 p.m. on a Tuesday is the perfect time to hang around miscreant bar dwellers.